Paying with Plastic
Four years ago when I was in India I wanted to buy a local SIM card for my phone. “No problem, Madam,” said the young man behind the cardboard box that served as his cell phone base of operations in the local street market. “Please give me your passport and a credit card.” Alarm bells went berserk in my head, as I tried to calculate in just how many nanoseconds the precious data on both these objects would circulate through India and then the entire underworld of scammers around the globe.
“Oh, I can’t do that!” I said. “I mean, my passport…..? And a credit card? Won’t I just top up minutes as I go, at a local kiosk?”
“Passport not necessary,” the black-haired youth agreed. “Any ID is OK.” I rummaged in my bag and handed over as harmless a piece of ID as I could muster: my AAA international drivers license. It had my photo, but nothing else anyone could use to harm me.
“Credit card, Madam?” the gentle but committed young businessman repeated. “This is a requirement. But you needn’t worry. I will show you a good trick.” Imagining that the trick I was about to witness would be the disappearance of my card altogether, I gave him my Visa card, my fingertips releasing it with more than ordinary reluctance. “Madam has a good memory, yes?” continued the cell guy. “Then please memorize this three-digit code,” he said, pointing to the security code on the back of the card. “Now I will scratch it off for you.” And he took out a rusty pocket knife, flipped open the small blade and promptly scratched off the three tiny black digits with its tip.
“Now Madam, if anyone should steal your credit card number, they will be able to do nothing with it. Because they need those three numbers. And they won’t have them. Only YOU will have them.” And with that he handed my credit card and international drivers license to a child of no more than six years, who dashed off barefoot. “Copies, Madam. Would you like some chai while we wait?”
And so I urge anyone who travels to scratch off those three little digits on the back of your credit card. I have had my credit card number stolen twice since then on other trips, and twice the scammer has tried to make high-dollar online purchases. Both times, without the security code, they could not complete the purchase. But the attempt, and the lack of security code, triggered alarms in the credit card Fraud department. They called me within 24 hours and closed the hacked account. I’ve been grateful to that young man ever since. But I’ve always wondered: did he, too, memorize my security code before effacing it from the back of my card forever?
I love Eagle Creek (EC) duffels. I’ve tried many and these are by far the best made–by travelers for travelers. They have all these special little features which come in handy for someone like me who’s living out of a suitcase for months at a time. They have extra pockets, dividers, cinching straps, tough Velcro to hold the handles together…and they’re sturdy as all get out. After lots of miles of rough and tumble travel they have yet to rip or tear. Another great thing is that they come in sizes from humongous to teeny tiny. I try to get away with as small a size as possible because when I’m taking it to and from the car every day, the weight of any bag automatically doubles. Besides, even with a small bag I find that by week 3 of a trip I’m only wearing half of what’s in there–I never have time to fully unpack and eventually certain clothes just seem easier to wear or more appealing on the road. Recently I splurged on an EC duffel with wheels. It’s heavier than a standard duffel, but the bliss of rolling it through airports and down sidewalks is hard to beat.
Something I’ve noticed: wheels don’t stop the hotel help from grabbing my bag and carrying it for me, even as I shuffle behind them shouting that they can wheel it. But that’s OK. I urge you to let the bell boy carry your bag even if you, like me, are perfectly capable of carrying it yourself. Most people earn a pittance and the little tip the luggage carrier will earn is something I’m glad to give him.
My other favorite luggage maker is Rimowa, a very expensive brand that I admired from afar until recently. A suitcase costs the equivalent of a cross-country airline ticket and it took me years before I took the plunge and bought one. I have no regrets. It’s extremely well made and the lightest suitcase I’ve ever had. Just seeing it slide down the baggage ramp gives me pleasure. I’m not a serial suitcase buyer, so I can relax in the knowledge that this one will last me for decades and will probably look better at the end of its life than I will.
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Things to keep stuff separate
Eagle Creek (EC) gets my vote once again. What do they for this time? For their mesh bags, cubes, sacs, pouches and kits. I use ’em all! There are three things that make me love them:
- The variety of shapes and sizes.
- The distinct colors.
- The different materials used, from mesh to solid, see-through to opaque.
Usually I select several medium-size sacks to keep my lingerie, scarfs and socks separated and easy to find. They live in separate drawers at home, so why should they have to mingle in my suitcase. On some trips I’ll also pack T-shirts, blouses and sweaters in a large sack, which keeps them from getting wrinkled. These days, my plethora of chargers goes in a sky blue mesh bag and my carry-on essentials like Advil, ear plugs and a small hairbrush go in a flat red sack.
Best of all about EC storage sacks? They’re washable. I can throw them in the machine when I get home and they look brand new again. I’ve had my blue EC toilet kit for years and it still comes out of the laundry bright, clean and ready for the next adventure. Wish I could recover from a trip so easily…..
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Because most of our road trips leave each day’s destination open, I use country guides to help us find places to sleep each night. My first choice in guide books is the Moon Guide, if one exists for the place I’ll be traveling. They’re geared toward the traveler rather than the tourist, or to anyone intrigued by the places main things that aren’t necessarily considered main attractions. Moon Guide writers are savvy, funny, observant, and wry. The writing is entertaining and informative, plus their sickle moon symbol, which they use to highlight the best restaurant or lodging, makes it easy for me to i.d. a good place to eat or stay, which is a real bonus when cell phone coverage is limited and I want to place one call that’ll get the job done quickly.
Bradt is a very close second to Moon. These guides offer an unparalleled depth and breadth of information that you won’t find elsewhere. If you want details about things like animal life, history and city guides for the countries in which you’ll be traveling, Bradt is likely to have them all. These guides also are laced with serious traveler humor.
Lastly, Sawday’s guides are the best for finding unique small hotels and lodges in major cities. When I’m in Europe I like to stay in small inns
(30 rooms or less) or B&Bs on a quiet street in a real neighborhood, where parents walk their children to school and students populate the local cafe at dusk. It’s next to impossible to find these places in the major guide books. Sawday’s fills an important gap and does so splendidly.
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I’m into luggage tags these days, bright, garish ones, different for each bag, including carry-on luggage. And I am so done with those rainbow straps of yore, especially since of late I’ve been finding them draped over the empty ski bins at baggage claim, like molted day-glo snake skins. My current favorite tag is a brilliant aquamarine with swirly patterns, which has a sister tag in magenta. Are there any brands or styles you like?
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Scarfs and Shawls
I can’t live without them. They are far and away my favorite accessory.
I have an entire drawer devoted exclusively to scarfs and Shawls and never travel without at least four of them, both for warmth and for style. Most of mine are bright pashminas in colors that complement every single other article of clothing in my bag. My two favorites are lemon yellow and burnt orange. Recently I inherited several of my mother’s shawls: a damask beige, a magenta and grey, and a rich chocolatey brown with silver and gold.
I always pack several long, silk scarves in as wild and varied a selection of hues and patterns as I can manage. What do I use all these fluttering lengths of fabric for?
For one, the thin silk scarfs keep me just that little bit warmer when the sun sets. They jazz up the plainest T-shirt, add elegance to a simple shirt and, when carefully draped, hide the soup stain on a blouse I haven’t had a chance to wash yet. Wrapped twice around they do more to sooth a sore throat than lozenges do. And the shawls have hugged my shoulders at the Bolshoi Ballet and been wrapped around my head when I found myself sleeping out on a particularly frigid desert night.
I buy lots of scarfs for myself and my friends–whose drawers are now overflowing like mine–from local vendors. Think of it this way: Weaving, block printing, batiking, all are local crafts that are most frequently done by women. And women are exactly who I want to support when I travel.
I’ve visited local co-ops, fair trade outlets, single mother initiatives, anywhere I might find scarves woven by local women. They cost next to nothing, the quality is always vastly better than what you’d find in the States, and I guarantee that whoever you give them to will feel they’ve received a truly authentic bit of a foreign place. The only problem with this is that, personally, I can only bear to part with half of what I bring home.
Colored Plastic Folders
Thank goodness for the translucent folder. Whether the ones with velcro tabs or with little strings that wrap around buttons for closure, I love them all. If you’re not sure why, ask yourself the following questions, to which the answer is self-evident.
Ever wonder where to keep the return portion of that all-important flight or rail ticket? Plastic folder. Want a place to keep all the emails confirming hotel reservations so you can easily shake them in the face of the desk clerk who’s smugly informing you you don’t exist? Plastic folder. Like to collect the local freebie maps and guides of museums, ruins, cities? Plastic folder.
I cannot have too many plastic folders. When I’m in an office supply store I stand in front of them drooling; like the Eagle Creek accessory sacks, the more variation in color the better. The truth is, they give me peace of mind. It comes from knowing that I will no longer inadvertently find the sodden mess that used to be an important travel document sitting apologetically on top of my laundry when it’s returned to me, having passed the previous few days shoved in the back pocket of my pants. Nor will I scrabble frantically in the dark recesses of my duffel for a piece of paper I just know I put there weeks ago, only to realize it most likely went in the trash with the rest of the detritus that had taken up residence there unbidden.
And who knows, perhaps like Eagle Creek accessories, plastic folders, too, may be washable.
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Extra Travel Locks
Stash a couple of extra locks in your suitcase. They have more uses than you might imagine. For one thing, they’re handy for keeping things in your luggage safe in small hotels. For another, more often than I’d like I find the TSA has broken my original lock and I need to replace it. On our last trip, as we were heading to the desert, a young boy ran up to us and shouted that the other kids had opened our LandRover’s rear water spigot just before we drove off. By the time we closed it we’d lost 2/3 of the water, leaving us with little safety margin should we need to refill the radiator or quench our thirst.
From then on we had a little purple TSA lock threaded through the spigot handle, so no one but us could open it.
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I know white seems like a recipe for disaster on a long trip but it refreshes like no other color, makes me feel snappy and chic. My preference is a white cotton shirt, which adds that feeling of crispness to the rest of the outfit. I also always have a white T-shirt, preferably with no one’s logo printed on it. I’m not advocating that you dress like Tom Wolfe, in white from head to toe.
I’m just saying, buck the trend of packing only sensible, wash-and-wear clothes and bring something along that genuinely delights you. White does that for me.
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Always Look Clean
It may be tempting on a long trip to let yourself go. After all, the roads are hot and dusty, water is scarce, everyone knows you’re not going to look as neat as you would at home and, in fact, it’s a thrill not to have to worry about being “put together” the way you do every day at work. But here’s the thing: no matter how tedious it may seem at first, you need to look good. Why? Out of respect for the locals. Throughout India I marveled at the shining, perfectly braided hair of the women, their spotless saris, the school children’s white knee socks and polished shoes.
If the only available water was from a spigot next to a constant stream of traffic on a busy city road, you can bet there would be a mother there washing her infant. The local people work tremendously hard to get their water and they use it sparingly, yet always try to wash themselves, their clothing, their children, in addition to using the water for the essentials of food and drink. Honor them. Do not walk around their country looking like a slob.
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Pamper Yourself Now and Then
Real travel takes it out of you. Maybe not the way climbing Everest would, but keeping your energy up and your spirits high is so important. And after several weeks of travel I need a break. That’s when I find a spa and arrange a pedicure or massage. I rarely get a pedicure at home, but when I travel I’m addicted to them, especially on a strenuous or tiring trip.
They make me feel rejuvenated. If pedicures aren’t your thing, indulge yourself in a way that suits you.
Other ways that work for me are lying in bed and reading a book instead of going out, splurging on room service, or watching a bad movie on TV (foreign stations have plenty).
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Using Laundry Service
Why spend time washing clothes when a) that’s what I do at home and b) there’s a whole world out there to see. Laundry is one of the simple tasks which employs people as an offshoot of tourism. From my perspective, having someone do my laundry is cheap, efficient and they’ll get my clothes cleaner than I ever could. But more important:
there are local women (or men) whose family’s dinner will be bought thanks to the few dollars I spend on laundry. Support the local economy.
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Passing the Time While Waiting On Line
I’m impatient. The best thing for me would be to sit somewhere far away from any line and let Bernard take care of all check-ins, ticket buying, room registration, document presentation. Except that I’m the one who’s done all the trip organizing. I know our reservations, I have all the paperwork, and getting just the right room or seat is important to me but not to Bernard. So standing on line falls to me.
I’ve been thinking of various things I could do to pass the time and one of them is yoga, in particular the tree or the stork pose. The tree pose is where you stand on one leg and raise the foot of the other leg off the ground, letting it rest on the opposite calf.
Remember to wipe your shoe first. If you were in a yoga class, you might be able to do the tree fully, raising that foot so your heel nestled in your groin. The stork is easier, though could be misinterpreted as an attempt to assault the person in front of you, bringing all the misplaced anxiety of airport security down on you. If you’re a true yoga-nik, which I am not, you may have other standing poses which you could do without attracting too much attention. Just be warned: do not do downward dog.
Not only would this dismay the person ahead of you, it would insult the person behind you.
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Purse vs. Fanny Pack
No matter how long the trip or how far up in the altiplano or out in the bush we may be, Bernard seems able to get away with nothing but a wallet deforming a side pocket. Even though we’re traveling in a car, I can’t do that. I need my chapstick, my tiny red notepad, a few pens, toothpicks, a roll of Mentos and, for reasons unknown even to me, my super market value cards. And I resent that I need all this, which is why I can’t make up my mind what to carry the stuff in.
On some trips I take a purse, on others I use a fanny pack. I like purses best because they hold more and are a lot more stylish (and look less touristy). On the other hand, the weight of a purse dragging on my shoulder bothers me. The fanny pack, while extremely unsophisticated, is very practical. And calling it a fanny pack is really a misnomer. When used properly it is actually a fronty pack, i.e., you should have the stuffed compartment on your stomach, not your butt, so no one can surreptitiously unzip it and abscond with the contents.
I also bring a pretty evening clutch on even the most daunting of journeys. The clutch is the accessory equivalent of the classic white shirt. It’s slim, light, impossibly impractical for anything else but evening and guaranteed to delight me whenever I see it in the bottom of my suitcase. This is pure frivolity on my part, a pleasant secret between me and my luggage.
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Leave the iPod Home
If you want to be a good traveler you have to leave behind things that separate you from the surrounding culture. Hearing is one of the major senses that can alert you to the fact that you’re not at home anymore.
Cars sound different in far away places, peoples’ voices, their tone, the music of their language, are different. Birds chirp differently, water gushes differently. Waiters shout differently, horns honk differently.
Listen to it. If you have earbuds in your ears and are engrossed in your own favorite tunes, you’ll miss so much. By all means, listen to music, but make it local: the tinny blare coming from a cafe, the favorite station on the taxi driver’s radio, the song from the modest boom box on the shoulder of a thin youth who passes you on the street. Let your hearing be one of the ways a foreign place will make an indelible impression on you.
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Take Time Off From Being a Foreigner
Find a local activity that makes you feel at home. For me, it’s watching soccer. The rest of the world is crazy about soccer. You’ll find boisterous, welcoming gatherings in hotel lobbies and bars and restaurants. Pick a team as your favorite. Stake a place at a table, order your neighbors a drink, and holler along with the best of them.
My other secret vice is staying in the room and watching TV, just so I don’t have to engage with something new.
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Taste the Local Food and Drink
There is perhaps nothing that speaks of a country and its inhabitants so much as its food. Though my experiences have not always been appetizing, they have left me with indelible memories, which is why I urge you to try whatever local food or drink comes your way and even to go out of your way to try it. I’ve persuaded a local brewer to part with a tankard of apple chicha, overwhelming his protestations that the drink was too strong with my calm, smiling insistence that I could handle it, and that I had a husband handy to carry me home if I couldn’t. I’ve traded a lemon energy bar for a glass of local corn brew, noting that while I pretend-sipped the contents of my cup, my counterpart pretend-nibbled Luna’s best, both of us smiling gamely while surreptitiously looking for a way to throw out our respective treats.
My taste of Ethiopian araki and talla nearly undid me. The barley drink was mildly alcoholic, which I always think is a good thing. But it’s color, a turgid milky olive mix that reminded me of nothing so much as bilge water, was so off-putting I could hardly open my mouth to sip. The taste was not encouraging. Still, I was able to take a few swallows by not breathing through my nose. The second time I was offered some I knew what to expect. The two old ladies who’d brewed it were clearly masters at the process, because their version was nearly palatable. Or maybe that’s just in contrast with how awful the first version one.
And then there was the episode with the faux banane: what I first thought was a lump of vomit, turned out to be bread dough. I tried t bite and had to stifle a near-overwhelming urge to gag. Weeks later, it was presented to me again, out of politeness and curiosity, I tried it. This version was delicious. Standing in a soot-stained thatch hut, as the family grandmother raised her arms to the heavens in thanks for the faux banane, and to bless it and us, was a revelation about global connection.
Make trying local food your mantra, but don’t force it on those who aren’t equal to the task. When a monk at a tiny ghompa in Sikkim made us welcome by sharing yak butter tea I had to drink Bernard’s as well as mine. Bernard doesn’t do native. He just can’t, but he can do other things I can’t do, like make meaningful conversation about abstruse subjects, or fix anything that breaks on our car, which is why it is always worthwhile having him along. The yak butter smelled of sour milk and rancid butter. Combined with bitter black tea and salt, it did not enchant. I had had a prior yak butter tea experience a decade ago, in a mountain-side hut during an intense thunderstorm in the eastern Himalayas. For the next 36 hours I was overwhelmed with food poisoning, so I knew what the beverage was capable of. As I gamely quaffed the two cups of tea in front of me, I hoped silently but fervently that the custom of refilling the bowl after each sip would be dispensed with.
My rule of thumb when eating local food and drink is to do it along with the locals. That’s when things are most likely to be fresh. The roadside chai stands in India serve the best masala chai imaginable. A true delight. But try to arrive at tea break time, when it’s fresh, or else engage the chai wallah in conversation long enough to ensure the brew is reboiled to your satisfaction.
And oh, here’s one final tip: Load up on Snickers, Mars and Toblerone bars. One or another is available nearly everywhere in the world and they’re the best thing when you get hit with a sudden bout of homesickness.
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When You Get Sick
Getting sick while on the road happens to the best of us. That’s why room service was invented. That’s also why plastic bags were invented. Always carry extra plastic bags. Ziploc is best, grocery sacks will do in a pinch. Use them to segregate dirty clothes, muddy shoes and wet bathing suits from the rest of your things, until that inevitable bleak midnight when you suddenly have to throw up. It seems I always get sick in out of the way, uncomfortable places, like an ancient granary with white washed walls and loads of fleas in Morocco, or a small tent on a big mountainside in the high hills of Nepal. These places don’t even provide comfortable accommodations, let alone vomit. Which is why when I finally got sick at a hotel, I was pathetically grateful. I had a toilet to bend over. And flush. I had clean sheets put on my bed whenever I wanted them, and a couch to lounge on and watch TV as I started to recover. If there’s one time I’m grateful that Coca-Cola has colonized the world it’s when I’m battling food poisoning or any other flu-like ailment and I open the hotel mini-bar. Nothing heartens my feeling-sorry-for-myself spirit like an ice cold bottle of Coke.
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How to Walk in a Crowd
This is important at train and bus stations, airports, street festivals and anywhere there’s a crowd you have to weave your way through. Here’s what you do: put your hands on your hips and stick your elbows out, as my mother told me. You’ll be amazed how readily people cede you the right of way. While you’re doing this, remember to have your purse strap slung across your shoulder and the purse itself in front of you, zippers zipped, latches latched. Otherwise you’ll make it through the crowd, but so will the thief who uses such gatherings to snatch purses from unwary travelers.
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I simply always have to have something to read on the plane. This could be a book. More often, though, I pack several of my favorite magazines whose articles aren’t time sensitive, like Smithsonian, National Geographic, or The New Yorker. At home I never have time to read them all, so I just pile them up. When flight time comes I grab a few for the trip. They’re good reading and, best of all, can be discarded when I’m finished. Or, if I’m feeling generous and chatty, I offer them to the stranger next to me and make a friend forever. For the true bulk of the journey, though I use my Kindle. On it I download the same mix of material I enjoy at home: a nonfiction book or article on the country I’m visiting, a novel or three; a compelling non-fiction book about something I know little about; and a trashy book that’s easy to read.
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Must-read travel books
I read to be transported to a time and place that I will likely never experience. This could involve an activity that takes me to world utterly removed from mine, like climbing Everest or sailing around the world alone. It could be about life in a country and an era that now no longer exist. Or it could be about a way of life in this country that I’m not privy to. It doesn’t matter to me whether the protagonist is a man or a woman, child or adult. What’s crucial is that the writing and storytelling be so compelling that it’s as if a hand had reached out and yanked me into another dimension. When I turn the last page, I want to be so saturated with that story and that life that I lose my way in conversations during the day and dream about it at night.
Here are my “Out Of This World” reads:
The Places In Between, Rory Stewart
Written in a deceptively simple and non-maudlin prose, this story of Stewart’s solo walk from Herat to Kabul in Afghanistan will tell you more about the country than any special report on TV or any number of articles in magazines and newspapers. The presence of a dog throughout is a real winner, too.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin
Godwin grew up in Southern Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. Crocodile is the second of three memoirs about his life in Zimbabwe. The book is that rare combo of socio-political instruction, woven into a story of heart-wrenching poignancy and mindless brutality. Don’t miss Godwin’s follow-on book in this series, The Fear.
Touching the Void, Joe Simpson
Epic mountaineering tale of disaster and survival in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. I have read many books of mountaineering exploits and this is in a class by itself.
Camping with the Prince, Thomas Bass
Gripping, funny and miraculous tales of science in Africa over the course of seven expeditions there. The book presents African scientists and in a charming way gets you to think about the intricacies and complexities of the continent.
Leaving Mother Lake, Yang Erche Namu w/ Christine Mathieu
Girlhood in the matriarchal society around Lugu Lake in northern Yunnan province, and what it takes to leave all that behind.
Coming Into the Country, John McPhee
A peerless work of narrative non-fiction about Alaska. No one creates the sense of drama and possibilities, nor conveys such sheer love of land and people, as McPhee.
Breaking Clean, Judy Blunt
Growing up on a rural Montana cattle ranch in the 1950s and 60s, Blunt pulls back the curtain on a way of life that I never imagined still existed in the U.S. at that time. And to think I was riding subways in Manhattan and attending anti-war sit-ins when she was riding her horse to school. Blunt’s life in Montana was as foreign to me as life in a rural village in India.
Travels with Lizbeth, Lars Eighner
Mind-boggling and profoundly moving story of a homeless man’s life and wanderings with his dog Lizbeth. Eighner was a writer before he became homeless, and continued writing during the several years that he tramped the roads. This book, too, is an example of a world that exists within our country, that I had never been privy to in this way.
Guests of the Sheik, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea
The author welcomes you along, to sit in the harems, walk the alleys and byways, befriend the families and celebrate the rituals of a rural Iraqi village in the 1970s.
In the Shadow of the Sacred Grove, Carol Spindel
Spindel is not shy about sharing her difficulties gaining acceptance into the daily life of a small coastal village in Ivory Coast. the book is peopled by herders, diviners, subsistence farmers, and those from whom she learned pottery skills. This is a quiet book, whose power grows on you almost without your noticing.
Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik
I know Paris well, and Gopnik not only captures its magic, but transforms one of the world’s most written-about cities into a voyage of new discoveries.
Venture to the Interior, Laurens van der Post
Close friend of Prince Charles, godfather to Prince William, van der Post was a native South African who became known as the primary advocate for the San people of the Kalahari. This is just one of numerous books he wrote on the region, including two of my favorite novels: A Story Like the Wind and its sequel, A Far-Off Place.
Iron and Silk, Mark Salzman
A young American (and unusually fine writer) goes to China to teach English at Hunan Medical College and study martial arts.
Godforsaken Sea, Derek Lundy
Gripping, scary, extraordinary tale of the Vendee Globe, solo-around-the-world sailing race.
Desperate Voyage, John Caldwell
Equally as gripping as Godforsaken Sea, but this is not about a race at all. It’s about one man’s folly and fortitude, setting sail from Panama with next to no sailing experience, and the troubles that befall him.
K2, The Savage Mountain, Charles Houston and Robert Bates
The first conquerors of the world’s highest peaks did not have synthetic, quick-drying fabrics, lightweight but warm materials, nor anyone who’d successfully preceded them to show them the best route. K2 is the world’s second highest mountain and far more difficult to climb than Everest. This is the story of the first summiters, of those on the team who made it to the top and whom among them did not make it down.
Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de St. Exupery
St. Exupery, best known as the author of The Little Prince, was a pilot in the early years of aviation. This is a book of tales from his time in the 1930s flying treacherous mail routes across the Sahara and the Andes, including a plane crash in 1935 in the Libyan desert between Benghazi and Cairo.
The Last Blue Mountain, Ralph Barker
This personal tale of mountaineering guts and tragedy has nothing to do with the guided attempts on Everest that populate today’s journal. In the annals of mountaineering literature, there is nothing that compares either to this particular story, or to the compelling way in which it is told.
The Everest Years, Chris Bonington
Britain’s pre-eminent mountaineer, Bonington also is a superb documenter of expedition life, and the rigors and vicissitudes of Himalayan climbing.
Road From Coorain, Jill Kerr Conway
A magically transporting tale of Conway’s childhood in the Australian outback and the road she took not just to leave that life behind, but to become President of Smith College.
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When I travel I like to know that I’m leaving money directly in the pocket of the person doing the work. This is especially so with women, whose options for earning their own money are so often constrained by religion, society and traditional divisions of labor. My friends’ burgeoning collection of scarfs, the most obvious form of native textiles, testifies to this, as well as to how helpless I am when faced with mouthwatering colors woven into gorgeous patterns.
On my recent trip to Burma, I was completely off the tourist track, taking local river boats 300 miles up the Chindwin River. On one of our first stops, as I sipped the standard Burmese daytime drink–strong black tea enriched with sweetened condensed milk– I became fascinated by a curtain strung across one corner of the otherwise open and airy riverfront tea house. What was going on behind that blue sheet with the yellow duckies printed on it, through which women came and went?
Peering around a corner, with a smile that I hoped would be taken as an apology if I uncovered something immodest, I was charmed to discover a hairdresser. One woman was having her hair styled and another was stretched flat on a padded table, having her hair washed. Since I have hair that reaches half way down my back, washing it is always a chore when I journey in places where running water isn’t available. This was for me!
And what a treat a Burmese hair wash turned out to be. My hair was suds’d three times and rinsed by scooping cool water out of a bucket. I could have opted for warmed water, but with the temperature in the high 80s, cool water was much to be preferred and felt deliciously refreshing to boot. But that’s not even the best part. For most of those 45 minutes, I received the world’s best above-the-shoulders massage, my scalp and neck regaled with such a variety of pinches, plucks, kneads and pounds that when I stood up I nearly toppled over from all the blood that had rushed to my head. It was total ecstasy, all for $3.00.
The chance to sit in a lady’s salon, while another woman had her hair styled in Burma’s latest upriver mode, charmed me, as did the owner’s happiness to have me in her shop. After that experience, I sought out the salon in every village we stayed in, all of them women-owned and employing other women. Each was shielded from prying eyes by a curtain, despite the fact that women washed their own hair in full view down by the river and that barbershops were open for everyone to see the gentleman in the seat getting a shave or a snip. In each, I found a slice of female society where I was welcomed simply because I was female and had hair on my head. My whiteness and foreignness, those two barriers to feeling a part of what’s going on, melted away.
So I urge you, next time you’re in a place that feels a bit out-of-the-way, whether it’s small town USA, or a village in SE Asia, find out if there’s a place where you can get your hair washed. Soak in local society, thumb through a tattered fashion magazine, listen to the chatter and laughter that bonds women around the world even if they can’t understand each others’ language. Not only will you be supporting the local women, you’ll walk out with a shiny head of hair.
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